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Greenwich Times – “Businessman hopes Americans tap into a Brazilian favorite”

Julie Fishman-Lapin

Sweet Taste of Success

Olie Berlic has spent the past three years traversing Brazil in a quest for the perfect cachaca.

What’s that? Cachaca?

Berlic hopes the word eventually will be a household name.

Cachaca is to Brazil as tequila is to Mexico or cognac to France. It’s a liquor made from pure sugar cane and is Brazil’s national drink, used in the country’s most popular cocktail — the caipirinha.

While the caipirinha craze took hold in Europe about 10 years ago, cachaca is just beginning to make its mark in the United States, said Berlic, who recently began importing several premium cachacas to the United States.

Berlic, a self-professed “wine geek,” founded Greenwich-based Excalibur Enterprises with the goal of importing Brazilian wine to the United States. Berlic’s wife, Marcia, is Brazilian, and the pair have visited the country annually for the past two decades.

Berlic spent his career in the beverage industry, working first for upscale Manhattan restaurants as a sommelier, and then as a wine consultant for the country’s second-largest spirits distributor, the Charmer-Sunbelt Group.

A few years ago, he began exploring the idea of starting his own company and importing wine from Brazil. But he couldn’t find a portfolio of Brazilian wine that pleased his palette.

That’s when Berlic switched from vino to cachaca. He spent three years in intense research, visiting hundreds of cachaca producers throughout Brazil. And — here’s the fun part — he sampled more than 800 cachacas in search of the perfect import.

“When I was tasting them, I was just seeing if a product would burn my tongue,” he said. “A bad spirit will burn your tongue down the center.”

He found that many of Brazil’s largest producers added sugar to their cachaca after it was distilled to mask imperfections. That’s when Berlic decided to produce his own premium cachaca.

He found a small Brazilian producer in Sao Paulo with the same mindset, and together they created Beleza Pura® — Excalibur’s flagship brand.

“My whole concept was to create the purest, the best un-aged cachaca,” Berlic said.

Beleza Pura® is produced using hand-picked sugarcane from two specific lots on the plantation. The sugar juice is then allowed to ferment naturally prior to a short column distillation process, he said.

Most cachacas are distilled in a 200-foot column, which cleans the alcohol, giving it a more neutral taste.

Berlic’s cachaca is distilled in a 20-foot column that enables it to retain the flavor characteristics of where the sugar cane is grown, he said.

“I didn’t want to make it into a vodka, or make it too pure,” he said.

Berlic began importing his super-premium cachaca in October. He also imports six other aged, handcrafted cachacas from small producers. This summer Excalibur will begin importing Beleza Pura® Caipirinha, a ready-to-drink cocktail that is a mixture of muddled sugar, lime and cachaca.

Beleza Pura® Caipirinha will retail for about $25, while Beleza Pura® sells for $27.99.

Beleza Pura® Caipirinha is going to be a hit, predicted Al Wadanoli, sales development manager for Connecticut Distributors Inc., the Stratford company that distributes Excalibur imports in Connecticut.

“It is a delicious, delicious drink and very easy to make,” he said. “I think that it will be the engine that will pull the train.”

Wadanoli said his company was interested in taking on Excalibur as a client because of the high-quality of the cachacas. “We know cachaca is beginning to gain some interest in the U.S. There are other cachacas distributed in Connecticut, but not as high quality as this,” he said.

Berlic has found early signs of success. In March, his Beleza Pura® won a silver medal in the San Francisco World Spirits Competition.

And two of his other imports won a gold medal and double gold medal/best cachaca award.

Several of Manhattan’s trendiest restaurants such as Sushi Samba, Bolo and Mesa Grill carry Excalibur brands.

Now that he’s found the perfect cachaca, Berlic’s focus has shifted to educating Americans about the spirit.

Fred Ireton, the past national president of the California-based U.S. Bartenders Guild, said cachaca and caipirinhas have become popular over this past year.

“I noticed that mostly women are asking for it. They are even becoming critics,” he said. Ireton said he’s shocked by how fast cachaca has caught on in America.

“It’s really surprising. I’m getting cachaca snobs on my hands,” he said.

Part of the reason that caipirinhas have become popular is that a similar muddled cocktail called a mojito, has become a consumer favorite, Ireton said.

Despite a rise in consumer awareness, Berlic said he has a big job ahead of him, especially as he seeks to broaden his distribution network. His imports are currently distributed in New York, Connecticut and Florida. Next month, distribution will begin in New Jersey. Berlic hopes to have California on board by summer’s end.

“It’s about building this one city at a time,” he said.

Copyright (c) 2005, Southern Connecticut Newspapers, Inc.

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